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‘Condor Comeback’ tells the story of a native bird that had nearly disappeared

Fewer than 30 of the California birds existed in the 1980s. Now there are more than 450.

Author Sy Montgomery new book, “Condor Comeback,” tells the story of the majestic California condor, which was near extinction when scientists figured out what was killing them and what could be done about it. Montgomery is pictured with Male Condor 480, one of the birds scientists have tagged to keep track of. (Sy Montgomery/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/The Washington Post)
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In the early 1980s, California condors seemed doomed. They could soar to 15,000 feet with their nine-foot wingspans, but they numbered fewer than 30 in the world. That total included those cared for in zoos. Many wildlife experts believed condors could never thrive in the wild again.

But as Sy Montgomery, a writer of excellent books about animals, points out, “Just because someone says something is impossible doesn’t mean it really is.”

In “Condor Comeback,” Montgomery shows how and why a dedicated group of people worked to boost the population of California condors to more than 450 birds. They had to figure out what was killing the condors in the wild, as well as how to make living in the wild safer for them.

Unlike Montgomery’s previous books, this one begins in a zoo. She and photographer Tianne Strombeck traveled to the Santa Barbara Zoo to get a close look at these large, unusual creatures and the scientists who study them.

Zoos, says Montgomery, “are the reason that California condors exist on this planet today.” Scientists figured out that condors were harmed by eating lead and small pieces of trash. Despite the objections of some conservationists, the remaining condors in the wild were captured. They would be able to breed safely in captivity and then be released and monitored. It has not all gone smoothly, but the team has learned from past mistakes.

Condors are a species of vulture, which have sometimes been described as unclean scavengers. Montgomery points out not only how clean they are (“Their breath smells sweet, like a fresh carrot,” she said), but also that they have been revered by many cultures throughout history.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for “mother” is a vulture, for instance, because they take great care of their young. And in Native American cultures, the California condor has been sacred to many tribes, including the Southern California Chumash. Although condors are scavengers, Montgomery sees what they do as miraculous: “By eating carcasses to feed themselves and their young, they can turn death into life.”

“Condor Comeback” introduces readers to many people who are helping condors thrive. We meet Estelle Sandhaus, a conservation scientist who has enabled adult condors to teach younger ones how to live in the wild. She and her team track the birds, monitoring their movements, and give them twice-a-year health checkups in the San Joaquin Valley.

We meet a lab scientist who analyzes lead fragments, blood samples and feathers to understand how condors are harmed by human activity, and we see veterinary care of ailing condors (including lead poisoning treatment) at the Los Angeles Zoo. And then there are the condor chicks, who are shown in a variety of nest-cam images with their parents in the stone caves that are their first homes.

Montgomery’s book describes the damage to the area in California from a massive wildfire that began in late 2018 and burned for 40 days. Unfortunately, there are new fires raging in California, and one of the important sanctuaries for condors was recently destroyed. The Ventana Wildlife Society plans to rebuild a sanctuary and has continued its work looking for missing condors. In fact, several baby chicks were recently discovered amid the devastation and are being cared for in zoos.

You can help

All of the condors featured in “Condor Comeback” appear to be safe from the current wildfires, but scientist Estelle Sandhaus wants to encourage the public to keep up the support: “More than ever, condors need our help across their entire range — to reduce lead in the environment, to reduce microtrash in the environment, and at this very moment, to provide rapid support to rebuild Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor sanctuary in Big Sur. By working together, we can create a brighter future for condors everywhere.” Visit the Ventana Wildlife Society website at for more information.

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